When did we start believing government’s responsibility is so large that only government could satisfy the meaning of “public”?

When did we start believing that any effort to improve the common good other than by government should be described by the pejorative label “private”?

Words matter. They carry meanings that unconsciously shape our thoughts and behaviors.

I hear well-intentioned people use these two labels regularly. They allow government actors too big a responsibility in our communities. They diminish the essential role of non-government actors (you and me).

We remain passive. This passivity feeds the disillusionment we see in Hawaii today.

Healthy democracies require diverse groups interacting dynamically. Each group fills in the other’s blind spots. They hold each other accountable. Collectively, they create conditions for Hawaii to improve.

Consider the sector labels below as an improvement to the current binary labels of public or private:

Government – provides essential common needs through official institutions of government including departments, agencies, government run schools and universities, the Legislature, the Judiciary and the governor.

Social — provides a broad set of common needs not fully provided by government, through voluntary means. This includes most nonprofits, non-government schools, unions and many foundations. They usually provide services directly to citizens. If they make more than they spend, the excess remains in the organization.

Civic — provides a long term, citizen-centric perspective and voluntary individual action to improve common societal functions. This includes Common Cause, League of Women Voters, civic clubs, the ACLU, policy organizations, leadership development organizations and nonprofit independent media.

Business — provides products and services that people buy for more than they cost to make. This excess is available for distribution to the private owners of the organization.

Family — provides intimate support for individual survival and long-term growth.

Each sector provides a distinct contribution to society and essential feedback for each of the other sectors.

“With the right words you can change the world.” — E.B. White

The next time you think of using the word “public,” try “government” instead.

If you are really brave, stop using the words “public” and “private” altogether. They are not necessary. They are not serving us well.

Words matter. Using better ones would encourage non-government action (civic, social, business and family) essential for a thriving Hawaii to be honored, not discouraged.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author